We Americans view U.S. citizenship as almost holy — as holy as any secular status could be. The Supreme Court described the national sentiment in the 1967 case Afroyim v. Rusk: Our “citizenry is the country and the country is its citizenry.” Because citizenship is so fundamental to our collective and individual identities, the Immigration and Nationality Act treats it with extreme respect. For example, a false claim to U.S. citizenship is the immigration law kiss of death. It permanently bars the false claimant from future applications for most types of immigration status.
It is therefore troubling that government attorneys find it appropriate to interpret citizenship statutes differently depending on what reading would lead to a denial of citizenship — and ultimately deportation. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has correctly labeled this practice “unfair.” I recently raised the problem with a Department of Justice attorney, who assured me that the practice amounts to garden-variety “litigation tactics” (the tactics for which lawyers are generally scorned).
I submit that the practice is worse than unfair. It is unethical and undermines clarity and predictability in the law. When the government interprets a citizenship statute, it should adhere consistently to its interpretation, or explain on a principled basis why a prior interpretation was incorrect.
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